Saturday, November 22, 2014

Marjorie McIntyre, The River Witch


Opening Passage:

Travelers going west in the 1850's were a serious people, acutely conscious of the importance of an extra ration, or of the tragedy that an ailing horse or a broken wheel could bring. Yet the life of the emigrant was not barren; he took along a sense of humor and a hoard of songs and tales.

On the California trail, a ballad or a sad tale was better than a rocking chair or a rosewood chest. You could sing the ballad around the campfire of an evening or tell the tale to each new person you met -- adding a bit yourself if you had a mind to.

It was along the Missouri River, the hub of westward activity, where travelers would surely have heard the strange ballad of "The River Witch." Intrigued, they listened and wondered about her. Who was she?

Summary: In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the steamboats move up and down the navigable but treacherous Missouri River, the steamboat trade dominated by the powerful Knapp family. Along its banks a diverse population of both abolitionists and slave-owners. tries to live in peace with each other and with the constant influx of travelers east and west, but it is beginning to get very difficult, and tensions are rising. Cordelia Riley, daughter of a steamboat owner, and a Knapp on her mother's side, grows up loving the river, even stowing away at one point on her father's boat. There she meets two people who will play an especially important role in her story: Red Maude, the prostitute, who she discovers in her father's room, and Josiah Callahan, the handsome young adventurer who saves her when she gets lost. And as the story unfolds, with her hatred of Red Maude and her love of Josiah Callahan, we come to learn why the River Witch ballad is sung about her.

The basic kind of story is one that I tend not to like -- the beautiful young woman who irresistibly attracts two handsome young men (Josiah and the pilot Pierre de Vries) and marries one while loving the other, in this case for a reason so unreasonable that it isn't clear it should be considered a reason at all. There's nothing wrong with this plot on its own, but there are so many ways it can be done badly that one usually sees it done badly. And, indeed, Cordelia is mostly insufferable. To be sure, she is very young, but it is difficult to sympathize with the self-centered. Yet there is a sort of realism to it. Cordelia hardly knows Josiah, but she loves the idea of Josiah, and because of that she cannot see the good things she has for what they are. At one point Pierre gets very angry at her when she says she does not deserve him; it's certainly true that she doesn't deserve him, but the statement in some sense simply expresses the problem, that she has already sabotaged the relationship, limiting it by nothing other than her ideas of it. And, indeed, this is a steady theme with her: she interacts with her own ideas, and not the real world, until it is almost too late.

In addition to the romance, there is plenty of color from the steamboat industry, which is somewhat interesting, and about the hardships of the day. There is also a strong focus on the relation between blacks and whites, as perhaps there could hardly avoid being in a story set in this region in this period. Stories written in the 1950s on race relations are always very hit-and-miss. There are some awkward aspects to the story here, but there are some things done well. Button, the free black roustabout, is far and away the most vivid character in the book; and Button's somewhat sardonic comment that while he is forced to see things as they are, "white folks butts they head on the wall," summarizes pretty well why he often seems to be the only sensible person in the vicinity. And Jean Austin's role in the book is interesting in its own right, as well.

There is a great deal that's interesting in the story, and it is told very well, but one of the clear difficulties is that while the tale is filled with interesting characters, the one person we know most about is the person whose primary interest is that she meets interesting characters. To be sure, there are threads of the tapestry in which she rises above this, as in the basic story of how she became the River Witch; but the romance has a tendency to put itself forward, and her actions in that are almost entirely irrational. Characterization is not the focus of the work, though; this is a plot-driven story, an etiology of a haunting legend, and as such it manages to pull together a number of good elements in a way that is certainly readable. And even with the characterization, most of the characters are quite interesting for the short bits in which we see them; we get lots of fragments of interesting stories -- it is too bad that they remain fragments.

Favorite Passage:

Reverend Bird turned his deep-set eyes on her. "I read of the tragedy of The Blue Teal and I said a prayer for your parents. I presume, my child, that you are saved?"

Cordelia looked down at her plate. "I took the Catholic faith when I married Pierre. He is a devout Catholic."

"Most unfortunate." Reverend Bird shook his head. "Catholics mean well, but they take the easy way out."

There was an awkward silence. Finally Cordelia asked, "How are you doing with your preaching, Reverend Bird?"

"Not too well," he said. "Iniquity abounds along the Missouri River."

Recommendation: As light reading, it's worth your time if you happen to come across it.

Whewell on the Principle of Purity

In the recent series on temperance (Part I), I noted a fundmental divide between older discussions of temperance and the (deliberately) diametrically opposed discussions initiated by Bentham. As it turns out, I was not the first person to recognize exactly this division. It occurred to me that William Whewell's discussion of the Moral Idea of Purity would be at least relevant to the question, and there we have the opposition clearly laid out.

A few things about Whewell's general moral approach first, which (because he, like most of the thinkers of his day, thinks of ethics as a moral science) is part of his general approach to the sciences. Whewell takes all human thought to have two aspects, which he usually calls Fact and Conception. (Talking about two aspects, though, can be potentially misleading, because Whewell thinks there can be levels: Facts + Conception can become a new Fact to be linked with other Facts by a new Conception. However, he thinks that at every level these two aspects can be distinguished.) When our Conceptions are so general that they are highly stable and unify a vast number of Facts, he calls them Ideas; some examples of Ideas are Resemblance, Cause, Number, and Space. We can formulate Fundamental Principles to capture how these Ideas unify Facts into an intelligible whole; these principles can be refined over time to take into account more and more Facts. The physical sciences as Whewell sees them proceed by observing the world around us in light of these Fundamental Principles, and by uniting Facts through the Principle to discover specific Laws of Nature. Moral sciences have the same structure, with Moral Ideas, Fundamental Principles, and Laws of Human Action, but the way we get Laws of Human Action is different from the way we get Laws of Nature. To get Laws of Nature we start with Facts and find Conceptions under which we can use the Fundamental Principles to organize them; to get Laws of Human Action we start with the Fundamental Principles and find the Laws, then reorganize the Facts to fit the Laws. In other words, physical sciences fit Laws to Facts; moral sciences fit Facts to Laws.

Whewell proposes that there are five main Moral Ideas: Benevolence, Justice, Truth, Purity, and Order. From these spring Conceptions that give us our entire vocabulary of virtue. Each Moral Idea has its Fundamental Principle, which serves as an axiom for ethics in the same way that Fundamental Principles of Space and Time serve as axioms for physics.

BenevolenceMan is to be loved as man.
JusticeEach man is to have his own.
TruthWe must conform to the universal understanding among men implied by language.
PurityThe lower parts of our nature are to be governed by, and subservient to, the higher parts.
OrderWe must obey positive laws as the necessary conditions of morality.

There are, in addition to these a number of Fundamental Principles for especially important Conceptions that assist in applying these to human action.

The Moral Idea that concerns us is that of Purity, along with its Fundamental Principle. It takes very little perusal of Book III, Chapter X of The Elements of Morality, which discusses the duties of Purity, to recognize that this subordination of the lower to the higher is exactly what is meant when older authors speak of temperance regulating pleasures according to what is necessary for human life. (And that Whewell knows this is confirmed by the virtues and vices he associated with it.) Indulgence in the desire for food and drink, for instance, is to be regulated so as to support "life, strength, and cheerfulness, and the cultivation of the social affections". Desires in general are to be subordinated to genuine affection, and blind affection is to be subordinated to moral sentiments.

Whewell notes, however, that some modern moralists reject any distinction of higher and lower in human nature (section 320):

The distinction of the Lower and Higher Parts of our Nature, by means of which we express the Principle of Purity, has been rejected by some moralists, and has been termed Declamation. Such moralists contend that pleasure is universally and necessarily the object of human action; and that human pleasures do not differ in kind, but only in intensity and duration: so that, according to these teachers, there is no difference of superior and inferior, between the pleasures of appetite, the pleasures of affection, and the pleasure of doing good. Hence, say they, the only difference in the character of actions, is their being better or worse means of obtaining pleasure.

This is exactly Bentham's view, and even if we could not recognize it from the description, the use of the word 'Declamation' would be enough to establish it: it's one of Bentham's most withering insults to call things mere declamation. Thus Whewell recognizes the opposition between Benthamism and the doctrine of temperance. He argues that we should follow Butler rather than Bentham on this point; there is a systematic order in human nature requiring that one thing govern another. If we follow Bentham rather than Butler, we end up destroying any distinction between man and beast and making it impossible to draw a coherent distinction between crime and error (fault and mistake), since they both just end up being miscalculations in the pursuit of pleasure. What is more, we make morality itself incoherent:

According to this doctrine, we can have no Supreme Rule of Action; for if pleasure be the highest object of action, it is also the lowest. With such opinions, we deprive the words right and wrong of their common meaning; for to men in general, they do not mean right and wrong roads to enjoyment, which this view makes them mean.

Whewell notes, for instance, that the pursuit of moral progress itself suggests that there is a higher end than pleasure, and that we know by experience that, while people primarily pursuing moral progress can have pleasure, people primarily pursuing pleasure tend simply to give up on pursuing moral progress. Whewell goes farther than this in his criticism, though. In discussing the kind of love that leads to marriage, he says (section 327):

The Love which looks forwards to the conjugal union, includes a reverence for the conjugal condition, and all its circumstances. Such a love produces in the mind a kind of moral illumination, which shows the lover how foul a thing mere lust is; and makes him see, as a self-evident truth, that affection is requisite to purify desire, and virtue necessary to purify affection.

Thus certain kinds of love inherently involve subordinating the lower to the higher, and those who love in this way are positioned to see that the Principle of Purity is a necessary feature of a good life.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nassar on Jena Romanticism

I know a few people have found my occasional excerpts from the later works of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel to be somewhat interesting; those who have might be interested in this interview with Dalia Nassar on Jena Romanticism. The works I've been quoting have been from a much later period in Schlegel's life, indeed, the last period of Schlegel's life, when he was very conservative, devoutly Catholic, and an enthusiastic advocate of the importance of Sanskrit and Indian literature; but in his early days, Schlegel was a freethinking Young Turk of Jena. Indeed, as noted in the interview, he was one of the Big Three of Jena Romantic philosophy, the other two being Novalis and Schelling.

Between the young Schlegel and the old Schlegel there is a vast gap, one that began to grow as soon as he left Jena and became extraordinary during his period in Cologne; but our oldest reflections always carry something of our youngest enthusiasms, however distant the two may be from each other, and many of Schlegel's basic themes remained constant his entire life.

A Basic Timeline of Schlegel's Life

1772 -- Birth (March 10)

1796 -- Moves to Jena and begins collaborating with his brother August, Novalis, Fichte, and others.

1797 -- Moves to Berlin.

1798 -- August and Friedrich found the Athenaeum literary magazine, one of the key events creating the German Romantic movement.

1799 -- Marries Dorothea Veit, the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, and moves back to Jena.

1801 -- Death of Novalis. Schlegel moves to Berlin. This year is usually regarded as the end of the Jena Romantic movement in the strict sense.

1803 -- Arrives in Paris and founds the review, Europa.

1804 -- Moves to Cologne and begins studying Gothic architecture and Sanskrit.

1808 -- Publishes On the Language and Wisdom of India. Friedrich and Dorothea convert to Catholicism.

1809 -- Goes to Vienna and is appointed Imperial court secretary for Archduke Charles of Teschen; accompanies the archduke in the War of the Fifth Coalition against Napoleon.

1814 -- Knighted in the Supreme Order of Christ

1820 -- Founds the conservative Catholic review, Concordia.

1828 -- Begins publishing some of his recent lectures as Philosophy of Life and Philosophy of History. The lecture series on Philosophy of Language was never fully completed.

1829 -- Death (January 12)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Promesse de Bonheur

Talking of a beautiful girl, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful picture, I certainly have very different things in mind. What is common to all of them -- "beauty" -- is neither a mysterious entity, nor a mysterious word. On the contrary, nothing is perhaps more directly and clearly experienced than the appearance of "beauty" in various beautiful objects. The boy friend and the philosopher, the artist and the mortician, may "define" it in very different ways, but they all define the same specific state and condition -- some quality or qualities which make the beautiful contrast with other objects. In this vagueness and directness, beauty is experienced in the beautiful -- that is, it is seen, heard, smelled, touched, felt, comprehended. It is experienced almost as a shock, perhaps due to the contrast-character of beauty, which breaks the circle of everyday experience and opens (for a short moment) another reality (of which fright may be an integral element).

This description is of precisely that metaphysical character which positivistic analysis wishes to eliminate by translation, but the translation eliminates that which was to be defined. There are many more or less satisfactory "technical" definitions of beauty in aesthetics, but there seems to be only one which preserves the experiential content of beauty and which is therefore the least exact definition -- beauty as a "promesse de bonheur." It captures the reference to a condition of men and things, and to a relation between men and things which occur momentarily while vanishing, which appear in as many different forms as there are individuals and which, in vanishing, manifest what can be.
[Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 2nd edition. Beacon Press (Boston: 1991) pp. 210-211.]

The claim that beauty is a "promesse de bonheur" (promise of happiness) comes from Stendhal's Rome, Naples, and Florence, but was made more widely known first by Baudelaire in The Painter and Modern Life and then by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens and Avi Kaplan, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair". This is a traditional folk song, with lots of versions. It was first recorded in Appalachia in the early twentieth century, but there are vocabulary indications in early versions that suggest it was brought over much earlier from Scotland. The most famous version is probably that of Nina Simone, although it has become standard fare in Celtic music circles, as in Lisa Lambe's version for Celtic Woman, which is fairly good.

The Hemlock Shakes in the Rafter

Misgivings (1860)
by Herman Melville

When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country's ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.

Nature's dark side is heeded now—
(Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
A child may read the moody brow
Of yon black mountain lone.
With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.

Ted Widmer has a good discussion of the background of this poem.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.142.2 co. (my rough translation):

Something is said to be childish (puerile) in two ways. (I) Because it is appropriate to a child. And in this way the Philosopher is not trying to say that the sin of intemperance is childish. (II) According to some sort of likeness. And in this way sins of intemperance are said to be childish. For the sin of intemperance is a sin of excess craving (concupiscentiae), which is likened to a child in three ways.

(1) Inasmuch as it desires something, for, like the child, so also craving desires something ugly (turpe). The reason for this is that beauty is recognized in human things insofar as something is ordered according to reason, wherefore Tully says, in I Offic., "Beauty is what is in accord with human excellence in those things in which his nature differs from other animals." But a child does not pay attention to rational order, and similarly craving does not listen to reason, as is said in VII Ethic.

(2) They are appropriate to each other as to effect. For the child, if left to his own will, grows in self-will; thus it is said in Eccli. XXX, "The untamed horse becomes obdurate, and the lax son becomes headstrong." So also craving, if it is indulged, becomes stronger; thus Augustine says in VIII Confess., "Lust served is made into custom, and custom unresisted is made into necessity."

(3) As to the remedy applied to each. For the child is improved by being limited, wherefore it is said in Prov. XXIII, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; with your rod strike him and free his soul from hell." And likewise when craving is resisted, it is brought back to what worthiness requires (reducitur ad debitum honestatis modum). And thus Augustine says, in VI Musicae, that, the mind being fixed on spiritual things and remaining there, the momentum (impetus) of custom, that is to say of carnal craving, is shattered, and suppressed, it bit by bit is extinguished, for it was greater when we followed it, and though not wholly annihilated, it is surely less when we restrain it. And thus the Philosopher says, in III Ethic, that as a a child ought to live according to the precept of his teacher, so also the desiring part (concupiscibile) ought to harmonize with reason.

Links of Note, Noted

* Tributes to D. G. Myers.

* Ronald Aronson reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.

* Philosophers' Carnival #169 at "A Bag of Raisins".

* Richard Marshall interviews Anna Marmodoro on causal powers.

* Maths, Just in Short Words

* Whewell's Gazette #22 has history of science links.

* Brother Guy Consolmagno receives the Carl Sagan Medal.

* Christopher Graney's guest-post at "Renaissance Mathematicus" on the importance of a semicolon is an excellent read for anyone interested in Galileo.

* Building Medieval Plate Armor

* Gerard Magliocca discusses how the American understanding of the Bill of Rights has changed through time.

* Nick Romeo has an appreciation of Aristotle's innovative and ground-breaking work in biology, noting that while he got many of his specific empirical claims wrong, he has also often been shown to be right.

* Carl Rovelli, Aristotle's Physics: a Physicist's Look (PDf). He argues that just as Newtonian theory can be seen as an approximation of relativity theory, so also Aristotelian theory can be seen as an approximation of Newtonian theory. In particular, the Aristotelian theory of motion is capable of accurately capturing the phenomena on the assumption that bodies are suspended in a fluid in a uniform spherical gravitational field -- which, of course, the bodies around us are.

Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, The four elements in Robert Grosseteste's De Impressionibus Elementorum (PDF) discusses some of Robert Grosseteste's experimental work concerning the four elements.

* The last of the original Navajo Code Talkers from World War II, Chester Nez, recently died.

* When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, it was almost immediately taken up and turned into stage plays. Some people think that the confusion between Victor Frankenstein and his monster, so that the latter is often called 'Frankenstein', began with the movies, but in fact it goes almost all the way back to the beginning, having arisen due to the nineteenth-century stage plays. And just as in the twentieth century up to our day more people had seen the movies than read the book, so in the nineteenth century more people had seen the plays than read the book, a fact somewhat significant given that the plays, like the later movies, amped up the drama and special effects. Online you can read the most famous of those plays, Richard Brinsley Peake's musical extravaganza, Presumption: or, the Fate of Frankenstein, whose major special effect was that it ended with a snowstorm and avalanche. Mary Shelley herself actually went to see it in the theater; she thought it badly managed as a whole, but liked how the Creature himself was portrayed and played.

* In the ancient world trade routes went everywhere, so there was a diffusion of artifacts over the entire African-Eurasian landmass -- very slow, but very definite. An archeological find from a fifth century Japanese tomb was recently confirmed to be a dish made in the Roman Empire in the first or second century.

* Thomas MacDonald discusses the old party game of snapdragon, in which kids would stick their hands in a flaming bowl of liquor to grab raisins. Can you imagine the fits some people would have if you did that at a kids' party today? I imagine that kids would love it, though. There's a website that gives a description of what it's like to play the game.

* Robert Cheeks discusses the philosophy of Edith Stein.

* Peter Kwasniewski considers the question of whether it is a mortal sin to depart from the liturgical rubrics.


* Paul Raymont also has some links up.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Westminster Quarters

Bells are an underappreciated instrument. I was thinking today about one of the most famous tunes in the world, a tune particularly for bells, known as 'Westminster Quarters', or, at times, 'Cambridge Chimes'. It's a tune you've certainly heard:

As near as anyone can determine, they were first composed for the bells of the Church of St. Mary the Great, which is the University church for the University of Cambridge. Nobody knows who, precisely, composed it, but the person most associated with it is the composer William Crotch, who seems to be the person who recommended the tune to the authorities. However, the chimes became world-famous when they were selected for the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster (whose largest bell, used to strike the hour, is itself world-renowned under the name 'Big Ben'). Thence it became the most common clock chime in the world.

Apparently the tune has common lyrics associated with it, although with lots of variations:

All through this hour,
Lord, be my guide,
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Plato and Xenophon

So I think this is all wrapping up. There are a few other things that could be done, but I think they can be saved for later.

I've decided to move the Chinese Classics to Spring; I need time to gather resources for it. There were some suggestions for meanwhile-projects -- something from Aristotle, or Marcus Aurelius's Meditations being examples. So my suggestion is that we look at a selection from Aristotle (Aristotle full-bore would be a rather formidable project), namely, Aristotle's discussion of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics Books VIII and IX. Then Cicero's dialogue Laelius on Friendship. Then we can do some Stoic philosophy -- certainly Marcus Aurelius, perhaps also Epictetus and some Seneca. Any other thoughts on this?

Plato: Widely Recognized as Authentic

Phaedrus: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Hippias Minor
Gorgias: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Timaeus: Part I, Part II
Menexenus: Part I, Part II
Phaedo: Part I, Part II
Republic: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Protagoras: Part I, Part II
Laws: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Plato: Heavily Disputed

Alcibiades Major
The Platonic Letters: 7,8
Hippias Major

Plato: Usually Regarded as Spurious

The Platonic Definitions
Rival Lovers
De Justo
De Virtute
Alcibiades Minor
The Platonic Letters: 1,5,9,12 ; 2,4,10,13 ; 3,6,11
The Platonic Epigrams


Memorabilia: Book I, Book II, Book III, Book IV
Cyropaedia: Part I, Part II
Hipparchikos and Peri Hippike


The Clouds


On Socrates' Daimonion: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Related Posts

Some Thoughts Toward Reading Plato's Dialogues
The Golden Villain of Athens
Sydenham's Scheme for the Platonic Dialogues
Hermocrates: A Non-Reading
The Last Days of Socrates
Philosophos: A Non-Reading
A Philosophical Bendideia
Life in This Present Hades
Socrates in the Anabasis
The Aftermath of Arginusae

Saved for Later

Xenophon: Anabasis, Agesilaus, Constitution of Sparta, Hellenica, Poroi

Plutarch: Life of Socrates

Apuleius: The God of Socrates

Libanius: Defense of Socrates